Israel and the Palestinians accepted on Friday an invitation by the United States and other powers to restart direct talks on Sept. 2 in a modest step toward forging a peace deal within 12 months to create a Palestinian state and peacefully end one of the world's most intractable conflicts.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet with President Barack Obama on Sept. 1, before formally resuming direct negotiations the following day at the State Department in Washington.
"There have been difficulties in the past, there will be difficulties ahead," Clinton said in a statement.
The meeting will serve to "re-launch direct negotiations to resolve all final-status issues which we believe we can complete in one year," Clinton said.
Clinton added that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah also were invited to the talks, which will mark the first direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in 20 months.
"I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward even through difficult times and to continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region," Clinton said.
Later Saturday, Egyptian state daily al-Ahram reported reported that Mubarak had accepted Clinton's invitation, saying he "welcomed the announcement by the Quartet and confirmed his acceptance of the invitation from President Obama to participate in the launch of direct negotiations at the start of next month in Washington."
Clinton's announcement was echoed by the Quartet of Mideast peace mediators - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - which issued its own invitation to the talks and underscored that a deal could be reached within a year.
Netanyahu quickly accepted the U.S. invitation and said reaching a deal would be possible but difficult.
"We are coming to the talks with a genuine desire to reach a peace agreement between the two peoples that will protect Israel's national security interests, foremost of which is security," a statement from his office said.
After a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the Palestinian leadership announced its acceptance of the invitation for face-to-face peace talks with Israel.
But Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, warned that the Palestinians would pull out of the new talks if the Israelis allow a return to settlement building on lands that the Palestinians seek for a future state.
Israel's 10-month moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank is due to end on Sept. 26.
The invitation to the talks "contains the elements needed to provide for a peace agreement," Palestinian leaders said.
"It can be done in less than a year," Erekat said. "The most important thing now is to see to it that the Israeli government refrains from settlement activities, incursions, fait accomplis policies."
Clinton said the talks should include the "final status" issues such as the boundaries of a future Palestinian state, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. She urged both sides to refrain from provocative acts.
"As we move forward, it is important that actions by all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it," Clinton said.
Mitchell, who spent months working to persuade both sides to restart direct talks, said the onus was now on them to produce results. He said the United States could offer "bridging proposals" if necessary.
The Washington talks also signal a deeper personal involvement by Obama, who has repeatedly said that resolving the impasse between Palestinians and Israel is one of his chief diplomatic priorities.
"He is putting his political future into the process," said Middle East analyst Stephen Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development.
"He has entered a process that is supposed to reach its conclusion just at the time when he is going to be running heavily for president again, so he will have a lot riding on this," Cohen said.
Others have just as much riding on the talks. In one year, the Palestinian Authority government plans to have established all the attributes of statehood, raising speculation that it might declare independence should talks fail to make progress on a "final status" treaty.
Mitchell, speaking after Clinton's announcement, said the climate of mistrust would have to be overcome.
"We don't expect all of those differences to disappear when talks begin. Indeed, we expect that they will be presented, debated, discussed, and that differences are not going to be resolved immediately," Mitchell said, adding that a final peace deal was in everyone's interest.
Emphasizing that the U.S. would not impose peace on the parties, Mitchell said "I don't want anyone to have the impression that we are going to supplant or displace the roles of the parties themselves."
"This must in the end be an agreement by the parties themselves," Mitchell added.
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